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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Northwestern's "accelerated JD"

This from Northwestern:

Northwestern University School of Law will offer an accelerated JD program starting in 2009 as one of the initiatives of a major new plan to maximize its graduates’ success in the changing worlds of the legal profession and the clients it serves.

Northwestern Law will be the only law school among top-tier institutions to offer an accelerated two-year JD program as well as the traditional three-year JD program. . . .

After reading the description of the new program - which requires the same number of credit hours, but emphasizes targeted "competencies" in "communication, teamwork, strategic understanding, basic quantitative skills, cross-cultural work, project management and leadership" -- I'm not sure what I think.  I tend to be (perhaps mistakenly) leery of legal-education proposals that seem to owe too much to a "law school is too theoretical; it should be more practical" view.  (It should, it seems to me, be both.)  Is that what's going on here?  A business-school-type approach to law school?  Or, instead, is Northwestern taking a wise, innovative step?  Thoughts?

Posted by Rick Garnett on June 22, 2008 at 01:14 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Tracked on Jun 22, 2008 2:45:38 PM


I'm with Professor Garnett on this one. It's true that many practicing attorneys treat the law as little more than a trade. "Get these facts, and that law, and here's your result." Ad infintium.

But that's only just scratching the surface of the law. Not only will it completely fail you on the appellate level, but there's a lot that goes into making the law which is most decidedly not workman-like. A "good" attorney, or at least a well-rounded one, will be able not only to prevail at the trial level, but will have sufficiently mastered the law intellectually to engage with its thornier propositions, enabling participation in legislative and judicial affairs.

If you don't want to do that, that's fine. Most attorneys probably never do. But a legal education which did not prepare its students for that participation would be incomplete.

It's true that a JD is not an academic degree the way a PhD is. But neither is an MD. But medical students spend about four years in largely theoretical study; even though the last two years are described as "clinical," they are mostly spent gaining fundamental skills such as patient interaction that are akin to the writing and analysis skills we are supposed to gain in law school. The "practical" education physicians get comes in their residency, a program which lasts at least as long as law school most of the time, and can take as long as six to eight years depending on the discipline. The law has no such analogous program except for, you know, the first few years of practice. It's unreasonable to expect a first year graduate to be completely prepared to participate in what is, after all, a learned profession, right out of the gate. More to the point, exactly what clinical skills each attorney will need varies so widely that it would be impossible to adequately prepare for a job that one may not even obtain until law school is mostly over.

There are plenty of trades. I've argued elsewhere that trade education is far undervalued and that we should be pushing people into vocational training rather than academic studies. But the law most decidedly is an academic pursuit, not a trade.

Posted by: Ryan Davidson | Jun 24, 2008 7:51:42 AM

No "disdain" for "the trades" was intended or, in fact, expressed. And, I'm comfortably confident that "classism" is not among my (I admit) many vices. Nothing in my post, comments, or views celebrates "ivory tower" aspirations; all I did was voice unease about the familiar-but-I-think-misplaced "what's the point of all this theory?" critique of legal education. It seems to me that a good lawyer -- a real, practicing lawyer -- will care about, think about, and wrestle with the normative and theoretical dimensions of the legal enterprise. The "trade school" characterization suggests, to most people, a different vision. To have doubts about this vision is not to "disdain" or "denigrate" trades, but only to raise the possibility that lawyering is something different.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Jun 23, 2008 10:41:11 PM

Why so much disdain for the trades, Rick? Law school *is* a trade school - there is a reason that historically, it was taught by apprenticeship.

Practicing a trade does not require "unreflective exercise of skills" - I would certainly hope my doctor or dentist, while also practicing essentially a trade (albeit a white-collar one), plies his or her creative acumen. Just as I would hope my lawyer brings his intelligence and creativity to his service to me as a client.

That comment denegrating the trades as some sort of robotic practice of unexamined motions displays a certain degree of classism that perhaps you didn't intend.

I am not ashamed to practice a trade. But I acknowledge that as a working lawyer, I am hired by clients to perform specialized tasks in keeping with my professional skills and accreditations. Lawyering is a specialized trade, and I would still argue that more schools should teach to the everyday tasks most of us will practice, and less to the ivory-tower aspirations of their law professors.

Posted by: another 3L | Jun 23, 2008 7:11:08 PM

Lysander asks, "How can you be leery of proposals that expand practical educational opportunities when you claim to believe that law school should be both theoretical and practical?" In my post, I wrote, "I tend to be (perhaps mistakenly) leery of legal-education proposals that seem to owe too much to a 'law school is too theoretical; it should be more practical' view." I don't see the conflict.

Also, I *certainly* would not want to be understood or perceived as "turning my snoot" up at "practical" education. And, I don't think I did. Perhaps, though, Lysander and I understand "practical" differently. A good, practicing lawyer will have cultivated, and will exercise, good judgment, and such judgment about the law and legal problems -- about how the legal enterprise works -- is acquired, it seems to me, in all kinds of courses, not just the obvious skills courses.

A similar point in response to "another 3L": Yes, a J.D. is not really an academic degree. It does not follow, though, that law school is, or should be, a "trade school." Ours is a learned profession, and a good practicing lawyer will be able to, and should want to, think reflectively, critically, and normatively about what she is doing. Perhaps -- I'm entirely open to this possibility, which is why I raised the question in the first place -- Northwestern's proposal is consistent with this vision of lawyering. If so, that's great.

I don't think that anything in my post could reasonably be taken as reflecting disdain for the practice of law or for the importance of orienting legal education around the aim of forming practicing lawyers. It is my view, though, that it is a mistake to think that "real lawyering" involves only the unreflective exercise of skills.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Jun 23, 2008 2:37:51 PM

This seems like a first hand-wave at the thing that many law professors like to ignore: law is a trade school. A professional school. A J.D. is not an academic degree, it is a professional degree - like an M.D., an MBA, or a podiatry or dental degree. It is meant to train you in a professional trade.

If you want an academic degree, get a Ph.D., and do some actual original research. No original research (or even original thought) is required to get a J.D. - it is just a series of classes one must pass.

Without that element of required original research - a thesis and a defense - it is a farce to pretend a J.D. is some sort of academic degree. It is supposed to be practical training! I'm thrilled when schools acknowledge that what they should be doing is training lawyers!

So. Given that a law degree is a professional degree, it makes sense to offer more professional skills classes - much like an internship in preparation for a medical degree.

I applaud Northwestern for its more realistic direction!

Posted by: another 3L | Jun 22, 2008 8:23:59 PM

Congrats to Northwestern for trying a different approach. Who cares what my tastes are? (Or yours for that matter.)

Let's see what the law school applicants, their law students, and the employers think. Northwestern is the only top law school making innovative moves and it's paying off very well for them and their students. Their student base has gotten much stronger and the world is now realizing that.

Posted by: lawlaw | Jun 22, 2008 5:53:52 PM

I like the idea of an accelerated program, but I don't like the Northwestern focus. I was lucky to be in the last "summer start" class at Iowa, which means I will be graduating in two full years and a summer, essentially. Though accelerated programs are great for non-traditional students who want to practice law quickly, they're also better for those of us (largely ignored) students who go to law school for other reasons than practicing law. My intent throughout law school and before has been to engage in a lifelong career in human rights activism. It's easy to see how a JD could help with this, but of course I will be earning far less money in my career than my classmates, and benefit far less from many of the classes offered for more "practical" reasons, as well as summer opportunities that go along with the traditional three-year program. I wish there were *more* theoretical classes - the international law curriculum, for example, is good but not nearly what I had hoped for. I was offered a spot at UVA as well, and perhaps should've taken it, but I went for the accelerated program and the tuition scholarship. I wonder if law school administrators will ever realise that they can market their programs to non-lawyers (people going into activism, politics, and many other related fields) and avoid alienating potential students.

Posted by: Judith | Jun 22, 2008 5:37:24 PM

"I tend to be (perhaps mistakenly) leery of legal-education proposals that seem to owe too much to a "law school is too theoretical; it should be more practical" view. (It should, it seems to me, be both.)"

How can you be leery of proposals that expand practical educational opportunities when you claim to believe that law school should be both theoretical and practical? There is no serious attempt at practical education in the core law school curriculum. The only practical element of my law school experience was an optional semester in the clinic and even this his was limited to about 20 2L or 3L students at a time and another 10 or so at legal non-profits (at a 1st tier school with more than 200 students per class). Sure a decent number of classmates got hands-on experience at a firm over the summer but should students have to schmooze their way into getting a third party to provide a practical element to their legal education?

I know many law professors turn their snoots up at "practical" education. I understand that it's a lot more work/time/money (Universities need to stop looking at law schools as profit centers and provide more resources or lower tuition, but that's another issue). I get the impression that it's seen as the province of 'lesser' schools (or bar-bri), and I suppose that's right if by 'lesser' one means any but the top 10 or 15 schools. In the vast majority of cases students at these other schools won't be off to big law. We end up at jobs that pay closer to $40k than $140k and that need us to hit the ground running without another year of tutelage. And law school largely fails us.

Posted by: lysander | Jun 22, 2008 4:48:13 PM

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